How Clean Labels Are Transforming Our Food System

March 11, 2024


When Jere­my Adams made a 2:00 a.m. store trip, he was faced with a dilem­ma.

He need­ed an oral elec­trolyte for his young daugh­ter, but he was thrown off by the ingre­di­ents. The prod­uct was full of arti­fi­cial dyes: Yel­low #6, Blue #1, and Red #40. He didn’t even want to drink it him­self, let alone give it to his daugh­ter.

Tak­ing mat­ters into his own hands, Adams, the CEO of Kinder­farms, devel­oped Kinder­lyte as an alter­na­tive to arti­fi­cial­ly col­ored oral elec­trolyte solu­tions. While Kinder­lyte stands out as one of the only nat­ur­al elec­trolyte solu­tions of its kind, Adams’ gro­cery store encounter is a com­mon sto­ry. A grow­ing num­ber of con­sumers are aware of the vibrant dyes that col­or their foods.

This is the sto­ry of how arti­fi­cial dyes entered the foods we eat, some health con­cerns they raise, and the emerg­ing mar­ket for health­i­er alter­na­tives and clean label foods.

How artificial dyes invaded shelves

Stacks of vibrant­ly col­ored prod­ucts line the food aisles in Amer­i­can stores. That’s no acci­dent, but their inven­tion was. In 1856 when a sci­en­tist named William Hen­ry Perkin was try­ing to syn­the­size qui­nine from coal-tar deriv­a­tives, he stum­bled on a vibrant pur­ple pow­der when he heat­ed the coal. This patent estab­lished him as a dye busi­ness­man.

These col­ors, which were ini­tial­ly used to dye tex­tiles, were soon adopt­ed by the food indus­try to devel­op eye-catch­ing prod­ucts. Since then, they have been used in every­thing from can­dies and con­fec­tioner­ies to jel­lies and ice creams.

While ubiq­ui­tous, these arti­fi­cial dyes can be prob­lem­at­ic – and the search for a replace­ment is lead­ing to inno­va­tion in sev­er­al indus­tries.

Food dye allergy findings and the FDA response

Cus­tomers – espe­cial­ly chil­dren – eat with their eyes first, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that these vibrant col­ors became a sta­ple on gro­cery store shelves. From Skit­tles to Kool-Aid, promi­nent prod­ucts aimed at catch­ing the atten­tion of con­sumers con­tain arti­fi­cial col­ors and fla­vor­ing agents to appeal to wider audi­ences.

With the back­drop of COVID-19 and height­ened aware­ness in the years since – con­sumers have become more curi­ous about the ingre­di­ents list­ed on their favorite prod­ucts. Inspir­ing a wave of more health-con­scious shop­pers, the pan­dem­ic prompt­ed con­sumers to ask these ques­tions:

  • What do these ingre­di­ents con­sist of?
  • What lev­els of these arti­fi­cial dyes are safe to con­sume?
  • Are there any health con­cerns asso­ci­at­ed with them?

The answers start­ed emerg­ing as ear­ly as 1970 when aller­gists pro­posed that these dyes might induce hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty and behav­ioral changes in chil­dren who were high­ly sen­si­tive to even small dos­es. Over the next 50 years, sev­er­al inde­pen­dent stud­ies, dou­ble-blind tri­als, and meta-analy­ses have shown a link between arti­fi­cial dyes and hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty symp­toms (now termed ADHD).

In response, the FDA con­duct­ed stud­ies that cleared sev­en arti­fi­cial dyes for food pro­duc­tion, includ­ing Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yel­low #5, and Yel­low #6. Com­mon­ly found in can­dies, baked goods, and soda, these dyes – just like their ves­sels – were found by the FDA to be safest in mod­er­a­tion.

While FDA efforts to iden­ti­fy accept­able con­sump­tion lev­els con­tin­ue, the Cen­ter for Sci­ence in the Pub­lic Inter­est (CSPI) uncov­ered more spe­cif­ic mea­sure­ments detailed in the chart below.


Not only are nat­ur­al ingre­di­ents becom­ing more promi­nent, but gov­ern­ment agen­cies are begin­ning to shift toward healthy alter­na­tives and pri­or­i­tiz­ing trans­paren­cy on their labels.

Modifications around the globe

Increased access to infor­ma­tion about the ingre­di­ents on high-demand food labels has fed into leg­isla­tive action over the last few decades, reach­ing a fever pitch in recent years.

Across the pond, Euro­pean coun­tries took a pre­cau­tion­ary approach with food addi­tives, even when the evi­dence wasn’t com­plete­ly con­clu­sive. Based on two gov­ern­ment stud­ies con­duct­ed in 2004 and 2007, the FSA and EFSA (the U.K. and Euro­pean coun­ter­parts of the FDA) passed laws man­dat­ing com­pa­nies to dis­play a clear warn­ing that food col­or­ing might have “an adverse effect on the activ­i­ty and atten­tion of chil­dren.”

U.S.-based multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies had to fol­low suit in pro­duc­ing dye-free ver­sions of their prod­ucts for Euro­pean mar­kets, and some U.S. states are tak­ing it a step fur­ther.

Cal­i­for­nia banned food addi­tives in Assem­bly Bill 418 (AB 418), known as The Cal­i­for­nia Food and Safe­ty Act, which will take effect in 2027. Leg­is­la­tion is also being dis­cussed in New York that seeks to ban sim­i­lar food addi­tives to those banned in Cal­i­for­nia, cit­ing health con­cerns rang­ing from hor­mon­al imbal­ance to behav­ioral prob­lems.

Unlike The Cal­i­for­nia Food and Safe­ty Act, New York’s ban on food addi­tives would take effect imme­di­ate­ly, apply­ing pres­sure on food man­u­fac­tur­ers to swap syn­thet­ic addi­tives for nat­ur­al alter­na­tives.

Innovating natural solutions

While puni­tive action is one way to increase nutri­tion­al trans­paren­cy on food labels, calls from cus­tomers for stan­dard­ized “clean labels” are get­ting loud­er.

Con­sumers pri­or­i­tiz­ing clean label foods are shap­ing the food indus­try. They are con­scious about what goes into what they eat, pre­fer nat­ur­al and healthy ingre­di­ents, and avoid arti­fi­cial addi­tives and col­ors.

What will that look like in the mar­ket­place? For starters, grass-fed meat, organ­ic ingre­di­ents, and nat­ur­al food col­ors – like spir­uli­na and carotenoids – will be at the fore­front of prod­uct devel­op­ment.

Accord­ing to Future Mar­ket Insights, the mar­ket for nat­ur­al food col­ors is esti­mat­ed to be around $1.7 bil­lion and pro­ject­ed to grow to $3.3 bil­lion in 2033. Spir­uli­na-based col­ors and Carotenoids are cur­rent­ly the mar­ket’s largest seg­ment, with over 40% of all nat­ur­al food col­or sales being spir­uli­na.

The ease with which these dyes will be adopt­ed by the indus­try is based on sev­er­al fac­tors:

  • How easy is it to refor­mu­late the prod­uct with the new dye?
  • What advan­tage does it give in reg­u­la­to­ry com­pli­ance?
  • How does it affect the sup­ply chain?
  • Is it cost-effi­cient?
  • Can it be mar­ket­ed to cater to a cus­tomized audi­ence?

The last fac­tor here might hold the key to accel­er­at­ing adop­tion.

The clean label initiative

Nat­ur­al food col­ors aren’t just a “good-to-have.” Accord­ing to Ingre­dion’s ATLAS study, 33% of cus­tomers are will­ing to pay up to 20% more for prod­ucts that make all-nat­ur­al claims, and “all-nat­ur­al” and “no arti­fi­cial ingre­di­ents” were among the top claims that cus­tomers were will­ing to pay more for.

In addi­tion, 44% of con­sumers sur­veyed in 2023 report­ed check­ing ingre­di­ent and nutri­tion labels when select­ing prod­ucts, up from 35% in 2020. Pref­er­en­tial shifts from prod­ucts that once dom­i­nat­ed the con­sumer mar­ket to food and bev­er­ages with clear labels and clean ingre­di­ents are also on the rise.

More con­sumers now are opt­ing for grass-fed beef, nat­u­ral­ly sweet­ened cof­fee cream­ers, and pre­bi­ot­ic drinks over plant-based meat, oat-based cream­ers, and old-fash­ioned sodas. Beyond what goes into pop­u­lar prod­ucts, empha­sis is placed on what the prod­ucts are pack­aged in.

Liq­uid Death, a Ground­Force Growth I bev­er­age and lifestyle com­pa­ny, is putting “death to plas­tic” with its eco-friend­ly cans encap­su­lat­ing a dri­ve toward non-plas­tic pack­ag­ing. While their viral 2022 Super Bowl ad famous­ly fea­tured kids “break­ing the law” by chug­ging moun­tain water, Liq­uid Death’s pop­u­lar­i­ty can be attrib­uted to how they are break­ing the mold of tra­di­tion­al con­tain­ers.

The theme? Con­sumers have height­ened con­cerns about the con­tents of food prod­ucts, how they impact their health, and how they are pack­aged. As aware­ness increas­es, inno­va­tion in the CPG food space is bound to spike, as evi­denced by the found­ing sto­ry of Kinder­Farms.

With evolv­ing reg­u­la­tions, shifts in con­sumer pref­er­ences, and a move­ment toward clean labels, the out­look is aus­pi­cious for com­pa­nies in the CPG indus­try.

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